Of all the musical heritages that hip-hop has sampled from, few have been
as important or pervasive as the Parliament/Funkadelic (a.k.a. P-Funk) legacy.
Spearheaded by George Clinton and other intrepid funkateers, P-Funk
represented the zenith achievement for the "rhythm of the one" that
musicians like James Brown and Sly Stone pioneered.
P-Funk's presence in rap music is practically universal, having influenced
an entire generation of rappers from both coasts (especially the West), but
no group has carried the torch farther or longer than Oakland, Calif.'s
Underground. The group is best-known for its 1990 hit "Humpty Dance"
(and little else), but deeper aficionados know that D.U. have taken their
role as the "sons of the P" quite seriously.
The tradition lives on most obviously in D.U.'s deliciously nasty beats,
fully saturated in greasy fat basslines and thick melodies. Beyond that,
though, the group also copies Funkadelic's habit of turning its liner
notes into cartoon narratives, and D.U.'s leader, Shock-G, also continues the
tradition of adopting different comical alter-egos, like "Frostbite
his famous "Humpty Hump" persona. Most of all though, D.U. pay homage to
P-Funk by sustaining a cultural legacy that celebrates life, affirms
blackness and envisions utopian futures for society.
Who Got the Gravy? represents a minor comeback of sorts for Digital
Underground. Outside of the reality-rap contingent, D.U. have probably been
Oakland's most successful group. Ironically, they might be better-known in
some myopic circles as the group that introduced the world to Tupac (who
began as a dancer with D.U.). D.U.'s last major-label album, The Body
Hat Syndrome (1993), was overambitiously messy, and 1996's Future
Rhythm was universally ignored. While not as thematically grand as
their first two albums (Sex Packets and Sons of the P),
Who Got the Gravy? tightens up the playlist and offers some smart
Of the better selections, their current single, "Wind Me Up," revisits the
Saturday-night flavor of '70s house parties -- wild, raucous and fun. On
the other end of things is "Blind Mice" -- underproduced, but a provocative
song that twists children's fables into social commentary.
Equally striking about Who Got the Gravy? is the number of cameos by
East Coast artists -- a first for D.U. Bringing on KRS-One for "I Shall
Return," the album's intro, the group is clearly reaching to break into the
fiercely provincial NYC market, a claim further supported by guests including
Big Pun ("The Mission") and the legendary Biz Markie. The latter song,
"The Odd Couple," is a delightfully playful and inspired verbal duel
between Humpty Hump and the Biz. The two couldn't be better together --
their irreverent and bugged-out personalities fuel a slew of "ya mama"
jokes and other assorted insults, all delivered with aplomb and humor,
deflating East/West Coast tensions to an irreverent game of the dozens.
"April Showers" is the album's most sublime offering. The song keeps it
local by pulling together Shock-G, Money B and a too-brief contribution by
Oakland's up-and-coming female MC, Mystik. While P-Funk and hip-hop have
their moments of crass sexual innuendo, "April Showers" is a love (song)
supreme, mixing terms of endearment over a silky smooth texture of piano
keys and dub-inflected rhythms. Seductive, not sappy, the song suggests
that D.U. don't always have to get down and dirty to make it funky 4 U.
What the album lacks, however, is the kind of cohesive hold that the group's
earlier albums had. Who Got the Gravy? is consistent, but not
always coherent -- the East Coast-flavored songs, for example, were
strategic moves, but it's not clear that NYC fans will buy into them.
Nonetheless, the album's strengths (groovy but not mindless party music)
position it as a counterpoint to the other side of current rap music -- one
that celebrates materialism and luxury. The P-Funk legacy that Digital
Underground update for the '90s was never about brand-name opulence. Their
extravagant displays of flair and fashion are meant as a tongue-in-cheek
critique of the blind race for riches, as well as a celebration of the
simple funkiness that life itself engenders -- even without corporate